It has become nearly a truism in English and other languages as well, particularly French, that revolutions devour their children.
This is so often repeated and apparently shown to be true, in the French Revolution when Robespierre loses his head, in the Soviet Revolution when Trotsky and numerous commissars are erased, that it comes to us almost as pre-verbal wisdom. It is a little surprising, then, to learn that one very particular man seems to have first seen and said it. He was Jacques Mallet du Pan, a citizen of Geneva, then a satellite of France, who backed the losing side in the French Revolution, that is, the royalist one.
In 1793, four years after the revolution began, after the abolition of feudalism, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the Terror and the beheading of Louis XVI, his patron, Mallet du Pan published his essay, “Considerations on the Nature of the Revolution in France,” in French and then widely translated and read. That is where we find the claim, “A l’exemple de Saturne, la révolution dévore ses enfants” – Like Saturn, the revolution eats its children. (Mallet du Pan aptly refers to the Greek myth of a titan who ate his children upon birth to prevent them succeeding him.)
There are two things going on here at once. As painful and bloody as the French Revolution was aborning, and as long as royalist sympathy lingered, in some quarters continuing well into the 20th century, there has never been any going back. Mallet du Pan was simply on the wrong side of history, not unlike the royalists in the American colonies who were numerous and thought they were patriots circa, say, 1765. Both had sound reasons but they did not prevail. So Mallet du Pan was wrong on the big question.
But in the details, in his observation of what revolutions entail, Mallet du Pan was not mistaken. The world had already seen one quaking revolution that formally began in 1776, across the Atlantic. Yet the American Revolution was a separation from a monarch, not the overthrow of a monarchy, and it was supported by France’s Ancien Régime. You could call that principle, as embodied by the Marquis de Lafayette, or you could chalk it up to Louis XVI loving the young Americans less than he despised the old British lion and still not be wrong.
In America, there was scarcely a revolution of social values and relations, whereas the French Revolution upended all the old certainties and created the first reactionaries, who yearned for the way things used to be. In France, Lafayette was made the commander of the revolutionary National Guard before radicals denounced him for his presumed – and imagined – royalist sympathies. He was forced into exile and five years’ imprisonment in Austria, Prussia and Silesia – as a suspected revolutionary.
In 1791, Louis XVI sent Mallet du Pon on a mission that was something like, “Lassie, get help!” He was dispatched to the free city of Frankfurt to secure the aid of German princes and came up short. He fared no better in Switzerland or Brussels. After Louis went to the guillotine, Mallet du Pon focused on political journalism, of which he was a forerunner. He wrote many pamphlets denouncing revolutions. And he attacked Napoleon Bonaparte, which got him exiled to the city-state of Berne in 1797.
In 1798, as French troops occupied Berne, Mallet du Pan fled to London, where he died two years later, never having had cause to reconsider whether revolutions were really all that bad.